As many blog posts begin…the small tucked away town of Vang Vieng was once known for one thing and one thing only… drinking and drugging while floating down the Nam Song (Song River) in a tube; thankfully, since 2012 when the Laos government finally cracked down on this reckless behavior following many tourists deaths, it’s now a thing of the past. I’ll say the drugs have been chased out of town and the bars have dwindled along the riverside to the point where they now alternate the days they are open. However, the city itself is still filled with backpackers and bars to cater to them. Even so, it felt like a very tame city overall especially compared to things I had read online. Once settled into our hostel we wandered through town briefly to find office of Green Discovery to sign up for “The Vang Vieng Challenge” (more on this in a moment). I had also been secretly hoping to get in a tube and comfortably float 2 hours down the slow river. Plus it was incredibly hot outside when we arrived on a minibus from Luang Prabang. So from there I easily talked Whitney into a spontaneous river tubing experience to remember…or should I say forget.
There are designated inner tube rental places in town where you pay 55,000 kip (7 USD). Then the shop drives you up to the starting point of the river tubing a few kilometers upstream. The sun was shining when we loaded into the truck, but a few clouds seemed to be building fast. I didn’t think much of it until we were on the river about 20 minutes and the sky opened up. Determined to do the full trip we floated along in the rain. Of note, it wasn’t until we passed the last open bar that the rain really started coming down, leaving us no option for stopping unless it was simply to sit under a tree or something. I think at one point we were the only two people on the water, at least as far as we could see in either direction. Then, as we neared the end of the trip, the rain kindly ended. Thanks for the shower mother nature.
After drying off we decided to warm up and reward ourselves with probably one of the best cheeseburgers I’ve had in Asia at this little riverside restaurant/bar called Earth (for those who haven’t tried western food in Asia, it was right on par with a “good” cheeseburger in the USA, which is extremely hard to find here).
Ok, so here’s where the real fun begins. First thing the next morning we head over to the Green Discovery office to be picked up for our “Vang Vieng Challenge.” Whitney had researched what to do in this city and got me interested in this. She described it as a 2 day adventure where we trek to the top of this mountain, where we will sleep in a bamboo hut looking out over the valley and then zipline our way back down on the second day. Sounds pretty cool right? Well it was, but it was so much more than I expected.
Our guide met us right on time and let us know that we were the only two signed up for the day giving us a private adventure. After a high-five for coincidentally getting a private tour, we loaded into a truck and headed off to the trailhead. Once we arrived, we strapped on our small backpacks with zipline gear and sleeping bags attached.
The trail initially took us by a much smaller zipline course at which point our guide pointed to the top of the mountain we would be climbing…it looked like it was incredibly far away. The trail eventually went past a small farm then into the jungle. Our first rest stop was in the middle of a creek where our guide kindly reminded us/showed us how to check for leeches. What? Whitney didn’t mention this. Nodding as if I know what he’s talking about, I casually glanced down at my shoes and legs and continued to do so every few minutes for the rest of the day (I only saw one tiny leech the entire trek that was on my shoe, so nothing really to worry about).
We continued on until lunchtime where our guide and his assistant grabbed a couple huge banana leaves and split it into plates. Then spread out our lunch on the ground, over the leaf of course, where we had no other option but to eat with our hands. I was starving and embraced the culture immediately. Whitney took a couple pictures then jumped right in. From that point, the trail got much steeper. Soon we were climbing something called a “via ferrata.” With our zipline harness on tight we would essentially climb a cliff using makeshift steps of rebar stuck into the cliff wall clipping our harness to each as we climbed for safety. For the last couple hours of the day we scaled a couple cliffs crossed a couple wire bridges and climbed ever steeper trails. It was tough, but it was so much fun.
By late afternoon, we finally arrived to the bamboo hut at the top. It was definitely a hut and I can’t say I felt all that safe standing in certain parts of the structure….i.e. this might be uninhabitable in the USA. Anyway, we opted to stretch out our sleeping bags on the deck where we could look out to the stars all night.
Thinking that was it for the day our guide comes back around and says, “Change into whatever you brought to get wet, we are going abseiling now.” First of all, I have never heard of abseiling, but I was dressed and ready. We strapped back on our harness then headed over to the nearby waterfall. Our guide then says, “We just need to climb up to the top then we will come down.” Soon we are about halfway up the 100meter falls where he stops us and begins tying off the ropes. I get talked into going first, (the man of the house), and once I’m hooked into the rope I begin to descend. Turns out abseiling is like repelling except it’s more like walking down the cliff walls rather than jumping down or when there is not a cliff, it is slowly lowering yourself down.
It was so exhilarating to feel the adrenaline pumping inside with my fear of heights bounding and the cold waterfall chilling me every step of the way. Whitney climbed down second with an equally spirited attempt and loved it. Afterward we headed back to the hut for dinner and once the sun set at 5:30pm there was absolutely nothing else to do – no electricity, nothing – just us, complete darkness and the jungle. As we laid down, staring at the stars and listening to the chirping of the jungles inhabitants, the minutes slowly passed, until we were all out cold – it was 7pm at the latest.
We woke as the sun came up in the morning (about 5:30am) and got ready for the next big day. We gathered our things put on our harnesses and headed to the first zipline of the day.
I was so excited for an entire day of ziplining as I took off for the first platform. I arrived at the next platform and immediately began to look around for the next one….I didn’t see any more zip lines, or any more platforms for that matter. As the four of us gathered on the one platform, our guide’s assistant lowered himself down to the next platform which apparently was 50 meters below us, using only a small rope; then he determined that it was better to lower us down as well because “the rope is too short for abseiling.” Our guide hooked everything up for me then said while pointing to his own harness, “its ok I have you stopped here and here, you go.” I thought he was joking then he pointed with something along the lines of “just little bit jump.” Terrified at what he was asking me to do, I thought to myself that this was it. I travelled almost all the way around the world and would be leaving it all here in Laos. I held my breath and hopped off the platform. Thankfully my guide had the rope tight and slowly lowered me down the 50 meters to the next platform. What a rush!
The rest of the day went on similarly. We ziplined and abseiled a number of times none of which were quite as frightening as that first leap of faith, but equally as incredible. We eventually made it back to town late in the afternoon and checked back into our hostel for the night.
We had successfully conquered “The Vang Vieng Challenge” and were ready for the next destination.